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The Coronavirus is No Excuse to be Racist

BY: AQSA RASHID

The coronavirus outbreak has created a wave of global anxiety in the past month since the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China back in December 2018.

Over 3,000 illnesses and 635 deaths have been reported in mainland China, with the illness reaching as far as Europe, Australia, the United States, and most recently Africa. In response to growing fears of the illness spreading further, Chinese cities have been quarantined, borders have been sealed, and international travel has been completely banned. 

Other countries are taking initiatives to bring their country's citizens back from the country and to temporarily end business and travel relationships with them. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus an international public health emergency, as its death counts have surpassed the number that SARS had infected in the early 2000s. A large wave of fear— especially in North America and the West has dominated popular discourse in a subject other than health. The panic has exposed deep-seated xenophobia and raging hostility toward people of East Asian descent.

East Asian people across the world have documented their experiences dealing with xenophobic rhetoric directed towards them in areas like Los Angeles and Spain, from racist comments made by TSA agents to verbal street harassment. While the U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has hailed the crisis in China as an opportunity to increase jobs in America.

In particular, students in California have felt their fears of racism around the virus were confirmed recently at UC Berkeley's campus. In response to an outpour of criticism for racist comments made towards East Asian people, their health services center made an Instagram informational post that listed xenophobia toward Asian people as a "normal reaction" part of "managing fears and anxiety" about the pneumonia-like sickness. The campus received a flood of criticism for the post, causing them to delete the post. As the previous freshman class of UC Berkeley is over 40 percent Asian, this has caused an outbreak of discomfort within their student body. 

While some efforts such as the suspension of flights to mainland China seem practical, other efforts seem to be hidden in racist sentiments.  Australia is quarantining people who've recently been to China's Hubei province on an offshore island–– and many of these people just happen to be of Asian descent. The coronavirus is amplifying a specific form of bigotry, where people attach racist stereotypes of "dirtiness" to people of color. 

Associations between germs and immigrants have always been a critical part of health policies in America. City authorities have long since justified racial segregation by drawing supposed links between germs/diseases and Mexican, Chinese, and African American people. It happened with the HIV epidemic, too, where similar narratives were portrayed against Haitian immigrants for being the only group singled out as a "high risk" because of their nationality. 

"Othering" minority groups centers the white experience as "superior" and "pure," while fears arise that "dirtiness" comes from people of color. The largest example of this dynamic is seen within the difference in how people react to the coronavirus compared to how they react to the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu has led up to at least 19 million illnesses in the U.S., with 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths this season. People are being encouraged to buy masks and fear for their safety in order to avoid the coronavirus than to get a flu shot. 


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